Havana, Cuba – 1960
The ’58 Oldsmobile rolled toward the heart of Havana’s harbor, towards the sloped ramp of a ferry bound for Key West. Cuba’s ties with the United States were crumbling, but not yet severed. A few months more and the ferry service would disappear, but at that time, my dad was just part of another family going on vacation. They could still leave the island, but they couldn’t take much with them. They were supposed to be coming back, after all.
My dad hung off the railing along the back deck of the ferry with his brothers. The three of them watched as customs inspectors worked their way down the cars parked below. The inspectors peered into each car, searching for anyone trying to take more than just a few clothes out of Cuba. When they reached the Oldsmobile, its springs weighed to the ground with extra luggage, they walked by as if it did not exist. Money could buy blindness in Cuba.
The ship slowly navigated out of Havana Bay, passing over the spot where the U.S. battleship, the U.S.S. Maine, exploded and sunk in 1898. It was one of a thousand different events that had pushed Cuba and the United States along in their delicate dance that had somehow swept my father along in its wake.
Only ninety miles separate Key West from Havana. My dad spent the hours watching flying fish soar along the waves off the ferry’s prow. My grandfather spent it with his heart pounding and his eyes watering as he stared first at Cuba and then at the United States.
None of the kids knew what was happening, but my grandfather knew. He knew that he was leaving the legal profession forever, trading it and the material possessions he had worked all his life to get for an uncertain future, an amorphous thing called “opportunity” and “freedom.”
“Fair trade,” he must have thought, as many immigrants have thought through the years from Ellis Island to the Golden Gate Bridge to every harbor, airport, and point of entry between.
He stood there, near tears, an arm wrapped around my grandmother’s shoulders, her hand in his. They silently said goodbye to the only world they knew.
He thought about the moment when they would squeeze back into the Oldsmobile and ease their way off the ferry onto an American street, the moment when he’d turn to his four children and tell them that they were never going back, that everything they knew was gone and that America was their new home.
My dad would stare up at him and think about flying fish, unable to believe the words or too young to comprehend them.
He was ten years old and the only English word he knew was “Hi.” Football meant soccer, baseball meant everything, and “American football” was a pair of words without meaning.
“No, of course I’m coming,” I told my dad a few weeks ago. “When do I need to be there.”
“July 19th,” he said. “We’ll have fun if you can make it.”
“Ok,” I said. “If the Grand Portage doesn’t kill me, I will be there. I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
Fifty years after that ferry landed in Key West, the Grand Portage didn’t kill me. I stashed the Looksha and all my equipment with a ranger in Grand Portage, stuck my thumb out, and began hitching to Duluth. I’ll catch a bus from there to South Bend, Indiana to see my dad. Between hitches and bus rides, it may cost me ten days, but some things are more important than a week and half on the water.